Longitude, by Dava Sobel and William Andrewes

My son gave me The Illustrated Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time for Christmas. It was one of those books that made me want to read it right away and ignore the rest of the presents. Okay, so maybe that feeling only last a few seconds. But it is a beautifully done book.

Figuring out how to determine longitude was a perplexing problem for centuries. Latitude was relatively simple — and the book explains why much better than I can explain here. But longitude was the tough one. So tough that a British commission was formed that promised a huge financial reward to anybody who could create a system for tracking it.

Enter John Harrison. Nobody would have expected this self-educated craftsman to build a watch so accurate yet so durable that it could travel across the globe and only lose a few seconds each day. The result was a watch that would track the Greenwich Mean Time and never quit or be off by more than a few seconds. Then the ships captain would use standard tools to identify exactly when the sun was at its peak (noontime) and thus be able to figure out how many hours and minutes east or west they were of Great Britain. That in turn told them where they were on the longitude line. Brilliant and simple.

The key was creating that watch (it was actually more of a clock at first and Harrison slowly shrank it) to keep perfect time and handle the crazy wave action of the ocean.

This was an interesting book. Not particularly well written, but still fascinating if you enjoy science. It’s about John Harrison to be sure, but it’s really about the history of scientific discovery, political maneuvering that resisted new ideas, and the rise of a great naval empire in Great Britain.

If you read this book, order the illustrated edition. Well worth it.